There has been some conversation in the comments of yesterday’s post that is relevant, expert, and unique in my experience of the discussion around D.J.’s handling of harassment reports at TAM. I am, therefore, promoting it to its own post.
TAM is so busy harming itself, nobody else can get a scratch in.
I want to apologize for going off on what seems to be a tangent, but I think there are structural, foundational issues here that lie beneath all this other ugly stuff – things we need to be concerned about as a growing movement with organizations that are important to the movement’s health and welfare. There are more reasons than the ones obvious to the harassment/policy discussion to be very glad, relieved, that so many groups are addressing this particular issue relatively sensibly. I’m not much of a commenter on the blogs, but I am sorely tried.
(Caution: jargon-riddled somewhat meta rant ahead)
OK, so the kind of geek I am is a nonprofit governance geek, and my geek-o-meters have been redlining since DJ’s first statement on this. The thing that is driving me crazy is that DJ and his board are fucking incompetent at governance. First, from DJ’s statements, it’s patently obvious that they’re not logging their event, at least not usefully so. It’s essential to log events; some organizations even log their office hours. An organization that runs a big event and does not run a log is begging for trouble, because, 1) they’re not keeping an optimum record of the life and history of the organization; 2) a log is a means for all staff and volunteers to be aware of incidents, problems, odd things, venue issues, and cool stuff during the event; 3) a log is a basis for an effective post-mortem of each event (which is another thing it looks like they’re not doing); 4) a log is evidence of the organizations response to problems that arise.
I’ll go into 3 and 4 in a little more detail. An organization that doesn’t PM an event is neglecting the single greatest tool for making their event better, safer, and smoother, while at the same time making it easier to run. Especially with one big event a year, you need to nail down where the glitches were and what can be done to solve them – and even three weeks later, you’ll need the log to help with that. Events make people high, and they forget things. One organization I’ve worked with runs an internal log and a public log for their big event: attendees can just walk up to the table and write down comments when things are fresh in their minds. That is so useful at the PMs.
And evidence. Well, if something happens at your event that causes concern among attendees, you can refer to the log, get the straight scoop on what happened, and reassure folks by conveying that it was properly dealt with. If an incident results in intervention by venue security or police, you’ve got the basis of your police report. And if you get sued because of something that happened at your event, you have a record to hand your lawyer and your insurance company that shows your organization’s good faith and due diligence. Accidents happen, even to the best-run organizations and events and it’s wise to be prepared for them. Also, your insurance people like to know you’re not stupid.
Speaking of insurance, there must be nonprofits all over the country who’d like to know who is carrying JREF and TAM, because they must be the most laid-back insurance company ever. I mean, I’ve seen a company threaten to pull insurance over the color of exit signs. And, oh, FSM, please please don’t tell me they haven’t got insurance. That’s just not possible. They need to have liability and D&O (Directors and Officers). I suppose it’s possible that the venue carries the liability (I sure wouldn’t!), but they’d better have D&O because they may need it.
(Punchline coming up.) One of the main reasons for incorporating is to protect individuals, directors or trustees and officers, who are acting in good faith, from being sued as individuals for the actions or negligence of the corporation. The “acting in good faith” part is important, both in terms of duty of care to the organization and responsibility to the public. The other morning, JREF was blown out of the water on “good faith”. They were in trouble before, but now they are in the soup. The board better deal with this immediately, or they and the organization are at risk. Even if they do, they have demonstrated such a wilful lack of responsibility that they’ve lost their leadership position among skeptics, and they should – but they’ve also screwed themselves organizationally. I came to movement skepticism through JREF, so it pains me to say this, but I wouldn’t touch that outfit with a long, forked stick. JREF and TAM are not the flagship of skepticism; they can’t be. We can’t afford them. They’ve let the movement down; we can’t let them drag the movement down.
Even if they suddenly get their act together, get some help (governance, NOT PR), and rise like a phoenix from the ashes, I’d be wary of donating or participating until they’ve re-established themselves as a responsible organization. They need to do a lot more work than merely* state a harassment policy.
tl;dr: TAM is over, and not because of PR problems, or harassment, or politics, but due to abysmally poor governance.
*word chosen carefully to point out context; sexual harassment and safety are not “mere”. This just happens to be the altar JREF is sacrificing itself upon.
And commented again:
Oh, ya. The politics of the issue make it more complicated, not least because it’s so emotionally loaded, which does tend to focus people on fixing the blame, rather than fixing the problem. That makes it particularly interesting that the folks who are raising these issues have been all about fixing the problem, while the organization (certainly as represented by DJ) has been all about fixing the blame. Tells you exactly whose emotions are running away with them.
But this is just as crazy if you try to find analogies that are more mundane: what would people think of a cruise line that made it clear they had no policy regarding an outbreak of contagious illness? (That sort of happened, and it really hit the cruise companies hard.) How about a summer camp with no policy about life preservers while boating? A service organization with no policy about conduct (or treatment) of volunteers? These are all symptoms of deeply-rooted problems with governance and responsibility. TAM’s response to the harassment issue is really bad, but it’s a symptom. There’s probably a lot of boring things that are also wrong there.
Excellent post. To follow it up (and to answer the question, “WHAT DID YOU WANT DJ TO DO????”):
1. Man comes up to DJ and says, “Hey, there’s this Drunk Guy bothering some people. Can you do something about that?”
2. DJ gets hotel security and escorts the guy out. He asks hotel security to get Drunk Guy’s name and information (This is important, as he doesn’t know what’s happened yet, doesn’t know if he needs to report to police, etc.)
3. DJ goes back to Informing Guy and says, “Hey, just want to let you know that we made Drunk Guy leave. You said that he was bothering some of the other guests. Can you point them out to me? I want to make sure they’re okay.”
If IG demurs, DJ says, “Yeah, I realize that this might not be a big deal, but as an employee of JREF it’s my job to make sure that people feel comfortable and safe at the con, so I just want to touch base with the people that Drunk Guy was bothering and make sure they’re all right.”
IG points out a few women to DJ.
4. DJ goes up to Woman #1, introduces himself and says, “Hey, I heard that Drunk Guy was bothering you.”
W #1: “Yeah.”
DJ: “I want you to know that I had hotel security escort him out. I just wanted to ask, did he make any threats? Touch you? (Anything else that is possibly criminal and would need to be reported to police?)
W #1: “No, he was just being obnoxious and a little scary.”
DJ: “I’m really sorry to hear that. As you know, JREF really cares about the safety of con attendees. Towards that end, we instituted an anti-harassment policy. I’d like to you provide a statement about this incident. This isn’t to get anyone in trouble or to make a big deal out of anything. But your statement can help us to prevent incidents like this and to make people safer at TAM. Can you do that for me?”
W #1: “Sure, I guess.”
DJ: “Great. Can I get your name and email address? I’ll send you the form and you just send it back to me in the next few days, okay?”
W #1: “Okay.” (gives info)
DJ: “Great, thank you. I know that Drunk Guy was bothering several other people. Can you point out to me the people you know he was bothering?”
(DJ then goes to Woman #2, etc)
Notice that doing this gives DJ all the info he needs–names, email addresses, date of incident and severity, in a really low-key way. It also provides con attendees a private way to air their side of things. Most importantly, if gives them the information necessary to direct harassment incidents through official channels. THIS IS ALL STUFF DJ SHOULD HAVE DONE AS A MATTER OF COURSE. It is absolutely unconscionable that he could hear about an incident, participate in throwing a guy out, and then not follow up to find out what happened–at the very least to make sure he isn’t legally liable.
This is, at the very least, a serious lapse in training and judgment on DJ’s part. I think it’s worse–I think he is more interested in minimizing and denying harassment than in actually doing anything about it.
And psanity commented once more:
Well, I can only comment on how things appear to me, based on what I’ve seen in the public discourse, so that necessarily makes me be cautious and a bit general, but, let’s see.
One glaring thing, to me, is that 1) they seem to have no process for internal accountability that covers TAM. People in charge don’t seem to know what’s going on, what has gone on, or what actions they’ve taken. This interferes with their ability to solve problems, and to communicate well about a problem and how it is being solved.
2) There seems to be confusion about constituency. (Interestingly, there’s a lot of chat in Nonprofit World these days about this; apparently, it’s a common problem.) Generally, an org’s constituency is not the board, or the donors, but those served by the organization. It’s important that an organization define its constituency, because the best long-term decisions are made with that in mind. TAM/JREF appear to want a constituency that is broadly inclusive of skeptics, but when they meet a challenge, it’s clear that they have not determined how to serve a large portion of that community. The terrible PR issues are a result of that. If what they want is to be exclusive, and serve a smaller or more discrete constituency, they should do that. In this particular case, I think that would be detrimental, but it isn’t always. The important thing is to be clear, and have that inform your policies and programs.
3) I want to be very cautious about this, and not appear to be throwing around accusations. I see a big red flag waving about liability issues. With no other information than what I’ve gleaned from DJ’s statements and reactions, I’m very concerned about how JREF protects itself in terms of liability. I’d have to say this is based on instinct and experience, without having concrete information about internal policies, by-laws, etc. The symptoms are leading the diagnosis, if you will, with the lab results not in. But, these folks are running a big event with international attendance and a high profile, and it looks like they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. It’s bad even to allow that appearance.
NPO’s are usually started by good people with good intentions. They have a purpose, they get incorporated, work up some passable by-laws, then get busy doing their thing. Years or decades go by, the world changes, the organization develops, and one morning the current board wakes up and realizes they should have defined HR policies a while back, or they should have had an outside auditor’s advice once in a while, and they have a Big Problem. It’s not unusual, but the future depends on how you deal with it.
TAM is lucky, just lucky, that nothing worse has happened there (at least, to our knowledge). And here they’re surrounded by supportive people, people who raise money for them, people who promote them, people who are not only willing to point out problems, but also to offer a variety of useful and concrete solutions, and they act like they’re under siege. They obviously have no idea how lucky they are, and I doubt their luck will last.
From the people who are generally concerned with how organizations should run effectively to you.